Rear Adm. Steve Williamson, USN, the deputy command for logistics, maintenance and industrial operations at the Naval Sea Systems Command, discusses investing in the nation’s public shipyards and workforce to speed nuclear submarine and carrier maintenance and more with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian. The interview was conducted at the Navy League’s 2019 Sea Air Space conference and tradshow near Washington where our coverage was sponsored by GE Marine, Huntington Ingalls Industries and Leonardo DRS.
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here at the Navy League’s Annual Sea Air Space Conference and Trade Show just outside Washington, DC, the number one gathering of U.S. Navy leaders from around the world as well as their international counterparts to talk about strategy, technology, budgets, and more. Our coverage here is sponsored by GE Marine, Huntington Ingalls Industries and Leonardo DRS.
We’re here at the Naval Sea Systems Command stand to talk to United States Navy Rear Admiral Steve Williamson who is the Director of Industrial Operations at NAVSEA. Sir, thanks very much for the time.
RADML Steve Williamson: Thanks for having me.
Mr. Muradian: I really appreciate it. You’ve got one of the greatest sort of but unsung jobs. At the end of the day folks always are talking about sort of the new construction, whereas you are fulfilling a critical operation, overseeing obviously all the supervisors at all the private shipyards around the nation. But what I wanted to talk to you about is your sort of primary job which is the public nuclear shipyards that are working to eat through this massive backlog of nuclear powered submarine repair we’ve got.
I want to start off, it’s an enormous task. Walk us through how much backlog you’ve got, how much work you guys are trying to burn through. I know that you’re trying to bring private shipyards into the picture as well, to help the backlog at the public yards. Talk to us about all the steps you guys are taking to get that capability out to the fleet as quickly as possible.
RADML Williamson: Sure, and I’m passionate about it but I don’t want to bore you with it, but let me start with —
Mr. Muradian: There’s no way, sir, you’re going to bore me talking about anything that has to do with ship building or ship repair.
RADML Williamson: Let’s start with backlog. Backlog really means we expected to take ships in at some particular interval and we weren’t able to do that. If we’re not manned appropriately, if we don’t believe we have enough manning for the work that the fleet needs to give us, and that may go up and it may go down, we can’t do it. So we’re always balancing what’s the fleet look like they want to give us in the out years, and can we get the people in and trained in order to do the work. If in any given year that work goes up, we tend to have a problem. But what we generally do is work with the fleet to figure out how to schedule it properly so in all four of our public shipyards we can get the work done.
What we don’t want to happen is, we expect a ship to come in, we know we don’t have the capacity, and we haven’t done anything about it. So that’s really why we’re leveraging more of our private sector partners and figuring out whether ahead of time can we solicit them to do some submarine work for us while we level load all of our shipyards. And right now that’s exactly what we’re doing.
Mr. Muradian: How many ships are waiting on work? How large is that backlog number as you guys are trying to catch up on this work? Because it had built up there for a little while.
RADML Williamson: That’s a really difficult problem set because as I described, working with the fleets if we’re capable of rescheduling work to level load, we technically have no backlog and the ships can be operational. What we don’t want to happen is a submarine’s supposed to come in the yard, it’s not able to come in the yard, it no longer can go out and do its mission for the fleet commanders, and therefore, it’s backlogged.
So right now we have a submarine, USS Boise, that is due to have maintenance this next year that I technically would tell you that it’s backlogged. The rest of the work is all about balance and when we can induct it.
Mr. Muradian: There’s been a lot of investment obviously in the public side of the yards. I know Admiral Moore has got an investment plan. Tell me what, it’s SIOP —
RADML Williamson: Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Plan.
Mr. Muradian: Which I think is kind of curious for anybody who knows about the Single Integrated Operating Plan. This is not that, but it’s still critically important to the nation.
Walk us through the investment you need, the skill sets you need, because there has been a rebuilding process going on in the public yards. There’s a lot of military construction that’s been necessary whether roofs at Bremerton or anywhere else. We were lucky a couple of years ago to visit out there and talk about the kind of investment that would be necessary for this.
Walk us through each one of these pieces on the manpower side of things, the capital investment side of things, and then the infrastructure and how they all come together to be able to deliver outcome.
RADML Williamson: This is where I get very excited. It all ties together. So let me first talk about the people and the workload that leads into the SIOP.
Given the workload that we believe the fleet’s going to give us based on periodicity of ships coming in, the operational cycle. We describe that we need a certain number of people to get the throughput we need to get the ships back on schedule. Our goal is to beat the schedule. On time or early, every time. But in order to do that we’ve got to be able to estimate that work properly up front.
So right now our job, SIOP aside, is to figure out how to take the processes that we own in the existing infrastructure that we own, and get better. Is that lean, is that a flow, is that new innovation, is that better ways to do things? So we do that every day across our shipyards to try to figure out how to get a little bit better each time and deliver more to the customer.
With the SIOP, GAO report after GAO report after GAO report described the fact that our infrastructure in our shipyards, which are hundreds of years old, was not up to standard. We balanced that out across the last many, many years and made decisions on what to fund and what not to fund, and the shipyards deferred maintenance. Essentially it’s caught up to us.
What we have described on how we’re supposed to get better inside the shipyards given the construct that we have, is that we have new classes of ships coming in. Virginia Class Block 5, Ford Class Carriers. We started in three phases with the SIOP. We did an estimate of all the shipyards and what they required. First and foremost, docks have to get upgraded. They’re old. They don’t in some cases have water flow requirements, electrical requirements, or size. So we pieced that out in our SIOP and said you need to improve these docks.
Additionally, if you don’t improve the docks you’ll miss 67 availabilities as they’re currently scheduled. So that seemed to be a pretty easy piece to talk about.
The second part is, the mechanics that come in, we have about 56-57 percent of our mechanics that have five years or fewer experience. It just happened to be through the retirement of folks that we brought new folks in. That doesn’t mean they’re not good and it doesn’t mean they don’t know what they’re doing. As a matter of fact, it’s a very exciting time. You have new eyes, you have new motivation, you have new ways of looking at things. It just is a matter of how do you train them?
Well all of the equipment inside of our shipyards has an average of about 26-28 years of age. By comparison, industry standard for their equipment, is about 10 years of age. So the question is, if we keep making offsets, which we have to do occasionally, are we not employing the 3 Access CM Machine, the 4 Access CM Machine, the 5 Access, the new lathe that we know can produce better inside of the shipyards? So that gets to the equipment.
The last piece says our four public shipyards that are hundreds of years old were built to build ships. The study that we put in place that really kicked off this SIOP measured Norfolk Naval Shipyard. Today, every day at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, the workers walk across Norfolk Naval Shipyard the circumference of the earth in order to do work, because that’s where the buildings are. Inside ship, material handling, and where the docks are. Just in straight lean flow, if you start putting buildings where they belong, you can produce more.
So it really is three phases. Got to get the docks fixed for the new classes and to avoid missing availabilities. Improve the tools, meaning the equipment inside the shipyard. And go ahead and invest in our infrastructure with IT, with power, with water, with the right flow, with putting the buildings where they are. That is a 20-year plan that the SIOP says we need to do, and right now we’re already started on that plan.
Mr. Muradian: One of the things that’s in the forefront of most naval leaders is also surge capability. The McCain and Fitzgerald accidents showed hey look, if these were battle damaged ships, how quickly could we get them out. I know with submarines it tends to be much more of a binary calculus, but still, there’s wear, tear, and how to quickly — I remember Cold War submariners, how quickly somebody could come with a massive evaporator problem, come alongside even a tender, get that quickly fixed, and then be able to get back out.
Talk to us about how you’re looking at that wartime surge capability at a time when the submarine force is going to get much smaller before it starts to really grow. Even if we start building boats much faster now.
RADML Williamson: It’s actually a great question and there’s many, many parties working on this issue. So if you run some scenarios and you assume battle damage of let’s say a submarine. You have a million questions. Where is it? Are the submarines that are in the yards right now, where are they in their availability? Generally speaking, we don’t have drydocks unfilled. There’s a submarine in them or there’s an aircraft carrier in our carrier yards.
So if we’re working a submarine, the surge capability is very likely going to come from the NAVSEA constituents. The government employees that are working those shipyards that can go surge to go fix that submarine if it can be fixed forward, and very likely intermediate maintenance activity sailors that go along with them. That’s probably who’s going to go fix this.
Where? That’s a question. What’s the damage? That’s a question. And inevitably, any submarine that’s in a yard that’s near completion of their availability, a surge discussion would probably be how rapidly can we get that one fixed and send it forward. Again, depending on the damage on the submarine.
You certainly can do repair at sea. The tender can still do some repair at sea. It just depends on the magnitude of the damage. You used Fitzgerald and McCain as an example. So a wartime scenario, can we patch the hole? Can we keep working? It really depends on the extent of the damage. Those two ships and what happened to those two ships really brought to light the fact of where do we dock ships, how quickly can we get them back to work? Can we leverage our private sector partners that build the ships, that build the destroyers, which we have in the repair effort? And how quickly can we get them to the scene?
Mr. Muradian: The Navy used to have a lot more submarines. It has a couple of them are mothballed. Two are in service now, but a whole bunch are in the mothball fleet. Would that help your overall calculus, to try to get more tenders out there to help do this job? Given that the fleet is more distributed and more forward than it’s been in a while?
RADML Williamson: I haven’t looked at that at all, on whether or not bringing out mothballed tenders or even building other tenders or their role. I know now that we have two tenders, and they’re both over in the Pacific. The model seems to be working pretty well. One’s underway unless it’s in availability, one’s back, and you’ve got a massive maintenance crew back there to work on the submarine. Again, it depends on what we assume the damage is. A tender can only do so much work on a damaged submarine. Really, we need to start thinking about what’s the ability to do in situ repair? If that submarine is damaged, do we actually have the ability to perhaps get it somewhere closer to repair it? Or maybe lift it and repair it. Those are things we really need to consider.
Mr. Muradian: Two more questions. One, there’s always this debate about what happens at public yards, the role of private industry, maybe the role that government yards do, should go into private industry. Talk to us a little bit about why the government yards are an important part of this calculus. Talk to us about that relationship and where things reside and what’s actually the value case for having a national investment, for example, in the public shipyards.
RADML Williamson: I’ll give you an example. There’s now only four public naval shipyards and there’s 36,000-plus employees at those four public shipyards. Predominantly, government service employees — engineers, quality assurance technicians, mechanics, all the like.
The private shipyards that do nuclear work, significant nuclear work — Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls — also build ships. Electric Boat builds submarines. Huntington Ingalls builds submarines and aircraft carriers. So the discussion of why have the public interest in the public shipyards is you have to have somebody who’s going to regularly repair submarines and aircraft carriers. If the four public shipyards aren’t there, there’s no capacity first and foremost.
Secondly, as always a national asset, we want to use both. We want to be able to have our government service employees repair our ships, be able to leverage them as I described. If a war comes and we want to be able to fix ships, we want to be able to get our employees underway to go do that. They fly all over the world right now fixing emergent repairs on our ships, so that’s wonderful. But it’s a very good balance. So we really do want to consider. If I could balance out the public shipyards all the time and exactly match the work that the fleet needs and the private ship companies are building submarines and building aircraft carriers and they find that to be an equitable model, I think it’s probably a good scenario.
What I’d like to see is the private yards have the ability and the skill set to repair submarines. If they don’t repair them for many, many, many years they’re not skilled. Much like our workforce that’s new now has a learning curve.
So I think a win/win is, how do we balance out both to make them proficient while not taking away from their ship building because their ship building is really their bread and butter.
Mr. Muradian: And obviously it’s a different skill set that you’re using when it’s on the ship repair side of things than not.
I’m going to combine two question in one, which is: How do you get speed faster? Right? Hondo Geurts, the Navy Acquisition Executive, has talked about hey, don’t get focused on the $5,000 work order. Get the ship out of the yard more quickly. How does that translate to you?
And second, when you do new construction you’re building a new ship and it goes out and you sort of see the benefit of that, whereas the folks at the public yards, it’s like the post office, right? You grind one out and then the next one comes in and you’re constantly grinding it out which can be a morale issue.
Talk to us about the two dynamics. How do you get them out faster, and how do you work on the morale piece of this that sometimes can get very, very wearing for folks who are under a lot of pressure to hammer a lot of ships out very, very quickly?
RADML Williamson: Fantastic. Actually, I’m glad you’re combining them because they’re the same issue. I would tell you, when I get asked the question about the new employees and what are they learning in the shipyards in the past many years, what I would say is they’re learning what victory doesn’t look like because they never see the end. Most of the time the shipyard will have worker that are skilled at doing some particular skill set, and go work on a submarine. They leave that submarine; they go do something else. They’re not even there for the testing at the end. It doesn’t mean that the construct should be that they’re there throughout, but understanding how to deliver something that the fleet needs on time or early is a very big deal. And when we do do that, we celebrate that. The fleet commander at PAC Fleet, Admiral Aquilino, celebrated the early delivery of the USS North Carolina. We’re on track for some carrier deliveries here on time or early, and we’re going to celebrate them.
So what we need to do inside the shipyards on how do you get them out quicker? Frankly, you keep working on the innovation that’s inside of the shipyards. You continue to invest in the things that they have no control over which is the infrastructure, the equipment and the drydocks. And NAVSEA O4, the Director of Industrial Operations, focuses on what are you doing inside the yard?
We are very, very quickly focused on all four yards, sharing innovation. How are you implementing it immediately? Not putting it in the drawer and saying this will be a good one for the next one we do in three years. How do you do it right now? Looking at multiple shifts, looking at how we can compress the timeline. Because right now we have a process in the infrastructure that we’re in that’s sort of driven by it. We’re trying to get the yards right now to understand you can’t wait for a 20-year infrastructure plan. You’ve got to focus on what you can fix right now. And there is no end to innovation that’s going on inside the shipyards and the sharing.
Mr. Muradian: Of course big data, you guys are harnessing for maintenance as well as automation for certain functions that are dirty and dangerous.
RADML Williamson: I would tell you, I love the term robotics. Automation, people immediately think if you’re going to automate a car line, all your folks go away. We have too much work. The fleet needs us to do more work on both my nuclear ships and the non-nuclear ships. Inside the public shipyard, if we can automate, do robotics, save time, save health, be safer with these tools, we can take in more work and the workers can be even more efficient and we can deliver more work for the same period or the same work in a shorter period, which ultimately our goal is get those ships back to the fleet commanders quicker.
Mr. Muradian: Admiral Steve Williamson, the Director of Industrial Operations at Naval Sea Systems Command. Sir, it’s an absolute pleasure, and I look forward to coming out to the yards and actually seeing the great work you guys do.
RADML Williamson: Great. Love to have you. Appreciate it. Thanks.
Mr. Muradian: I can’t imagine a better day out, actually. So thanks very much.
RADML Williamson: You got it. Bye-bye.